Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 succeeding her half-sister Mary.  She was confirmed by Act of Parliament as head of the established church. An Act of Uniformity required the use of the new Book of Common Prayer by all clergy. Non-attendance at official church was an offence punishable by fine.  In practice a significant degree of toleration was allowed.

Elizabethan England was one of the strongest mercantile and acquisitive powers in Europe.  It had been forced out of the last continental possession Calais and faced France and Spain as belligerent opponents. In the Northeast was the McDonalds and MacDonnells dominated a Hebridean Irish lordship independent of the Scottish,  English and Irish governments.

Desmond’s Rebellion

The lieutenancy of Sir Henry Sidney, 1566-1571 saw an increase in a military approach to control over the island.  Sidney installed provincial l presidencies in Munster and Connacht.  They were intended to introduce government to those areas equivalent to that in the Pale.  Connacht was shired at this time. The 1570s saw the arrival of gentleman adventurers and claimants under dubious old titles.

The Earl of Desmond was imprisoned in 1567.  His kinsman James FitzGerald took up arms ostensibly to safeguard the Earl’s rights and was joined by the Butlers who were enraged regarding a judgment in favour of Sir Peter Carew who claimed to be an heir harking back numerous years, to a substantial part of the Kavanagh and Butler land.  The revolt was put down in brutal fashion, with the  wholesale slaying of garrisons.

In 1570 Queen Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope and who recognized her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots as Queen.  James FitzMaurice’s child, who had fled to Europe after the earlier rebellion landed in Dingle with a small Spanish force and a papal bull which purported to deprive Elizabeth of both England and Ireland.  FitzMaurice’s appeal was answered by the family of the Earl of Desmond but opposed by others.  After a number of skirmishes FitzMaurice was killed.

There were several further uprisings in Munster and in the pale itself. The campaign in Munster was one of siege and scorched earth which devastated most of the province.  In 1583 the government forces led by Lord Grey with the assistance of the Earl of Ormond had reasserted control.  The Earl of Desmond entered the rising late was killed in Kerry in 1583.The southwest of the country and Munster was reduced to a wasteland due to the savagery of the campaign.

The recurring rebellions placed a large burden on the treasury .Almost half-a-million acres of the best land was confiscated and the first large-scale colony in Ireland was attempted.


In the early 16th century plantations were being established rapidly through the newly discovered America.  Many  argued that plantations were justified in spreading civilization into barbaric areas.  Adventurers in the scheme were given the title, ‘colonel’ both because of military functions but also because of their responsibility to lead colonies   in order to populate the country with ”civilised” persons brought up in the law of England. Colonels and none of their soldiers were to marry the “wild”  Irish and social interaction was to be restricted.

The Munster Plantation of the 1580s was  instituted after the Desmond Rebellions, when the Geraldine Earl of Desmond had rebelled against English interference in Munster. The Desmond dynasty was annihilated in the aftermath of the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579–83) and their estates were confiscated by the Crown.

There were differing views as to the appropriateness of plantation within the English administration.  One group favoured plantation on the basis that it was the only means of subduing native lordships. Another group, particularly under the Earl of Ormond, a cousin of the Queen sought to minimize plantation and offer greater accommodation.

There was also the practical necessity of rewarding officials and soldiers involved in the wars with the land to be forfeited and confiscated from the Earl of Desmond after the suppression of its rebellion.


It was argued that only the demesne  lands of the deceased Earl and his associates had been forfeited.  Ormond encouraged native owners to pursue challenges to titles claimed by the Crown in relation to some of the lands previously occupied by Desmond and his supporters.  It was argued by the government that some of the lands were enjoyed by freeholders by extortion rather than by right by the former Earl.

In 1584 the newly appointed governor had been specifically commissioned to re-people the dis-peopled province of Munster so that the land distributed could be inhabited with obedient subjects.  Ormond yielded to the inevitable and sought to shape rather than frustrate the projected plantation of Munster.  He claimed part of the Desmond’s lands for himself and persuaded the authorities that the captains and officials who had served the  Crown lacked the resources necessary to populate the land, given the waste.

He referred to the experience at the recent plantation on the forfeited estates in Laois and Offaly which had essentially failed in their objective.  He sought to promote the claims of Munster Lords to escheated lands who had remained loyal to the government during the Desmond rebellion.

However, his exhortions were essentially rejected and no recognition was given to the claims of Irish Lords.  The Privy Council decided to pursue a policy of plantation and the attraction of planters to plant and take control of the land, rather than farm them out to natives.

Grants to Planters

Persons enjoying substantial resources and social prestige in England would be welcomed as planters.  They would receive seignories of between 12,000 to 4000 profitable acres and would undertake to establish 91 English families for every grant of 12,000 acres with a proportionate numbers on lesser holdings.

Each full seignory was to be divided by the head-lord into six freeholds and each freeholder would farm 300 acres.  Six farmers would each lease 400 acres. 42 copyholders would each call 100 acres and 36 lesser tenants would be granted small holdings or be settled on an estate village.  This contemplated a settler population of about 12,000 on the escheated Munster lands. The plantation was also had a religious element in seeking to bring the Reformation to Ireland.

The conditions were set out in grants made to the grantees.  Villages comprising at least 26 families were to include two gardeners, a wheelwright, a smith, mason, carpenter, thatcher, tailor, shoemaker, butcher, miller, victualler  and parish clerk.  Each village was to have a vicarage for a minister who would have  land and other income to the value of a 100 Marks a year.  Each estate for this would have a windmill and watermill and a leet court.  The colony would have to be able to defend itself from rebels.

Terms & Conditions

62 seignories  were contemplated.  In Munster, each model seignory was to be of nine.  The proprietors in each cluster of nine seignories worked collectively to provide one market town place.  It may be in the midst of the other eight and  furnished with merchants, retailers and artisans and populated by 200 English families.  There was to be a place in the town for a Minister excelling the rest in learning with an income of £100  per year which would be collected from all nine seignories. The model was being employed in the Americas and was aimed at providing a microcosm of English society.

Title to the property was established by Act of Attainder of the deceased Earl of Desmond and his associates.  This was passed in the Irish Parliament in 1585.  A campaign was undertaken to find appropriate undertakers in England.  The scheme was published in England by Justice of the Peace in the various shires.

Process of Division

Lists were compiled of potential undertakers and acreages for which they contracted.  They were to negotiate with appropriate tenants and artisans who might accompany them to Munster. Over 100,000 acres were surveyed.  It became apparent that the available land were not sufficient to meet the requirements of those already assigned property as undertakers.

The area of lands available was reduced as Irish owners established that a significant part of the lands on which Desmond had charged rents had not been his property and therefore should not have been forfeited and included in the plantation scheme. The government ordered that disputed ownership should be resolved by an investigation of exactions claimed by the Earl of Desmond.  The investigation took several years and relied on information from locals whom the government felt to be unreliable.

There was allegations of favouritism in the assignment of property. Favoured undertakers were given prominence.  The plantation developed a distinctly militaristic aspect.  This coincided with the threat of  Spanish invasion culminating in the failed Armada in  1588. Sir Walter Raleigh took possession of three-and-a-half seignories of prime land near Youghal.

There were conflicting assignments and disputes arose between undertakers as to the lands assigned. Some undertakers were discouraged by what confronted them when they arrived, the general waste of the country and dilapidated state of property.

The Plantation in Practice

The quality of planters varied from those who took their undertakings seriously to those whose primary aim was to make a quick profit.  Officials in both England and Ireland pressed them to meet their obligations so as to achieve the objectives of the plantation.  About 4, 000 people had settled by the end of the 16th century in Munster under the plantation. Ultimately the plantation established a series of pockets of English settlements where none had previously existed.

Some who came to accept intended tenancies from particular planters took tenancies on better terms from native Lords.  The settlers effectively gravitated towards the most desirable parts of the province. Some intended planters spilled over beyond the intended confines of the  plantation and settled in more remote regions.

The Munster plantation ultimately was different in outcome and effect than that originally envisaged. The plantation was concentrated in particular estates and parts of the province.

More conscientious undertakers did create model settlements aspiring to create exclusively English enclaves.  In some cases, the lands were scattered, and holdings became dispersed.  Irish owners recovered substantial amounts of land that had been confiscated, through the courts.

The effect of the more limited plantation was to create a network of planter landowners who achieved a virtual monopoly on the office of sheriff and Justice of the Peace. The provincial councils became an instrument of planter power.


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